Coming attraction: The shifting landscape of the Memphis film scene

Memphis is seeing more creative content produced each year by local independent filmmakers as the rise of episodic television props up an industry hurt by Tennessee's lack of competitive film incentives.
 
Film and television production in Memphis has experienced a shift over the past decade, with a meteoric rise in unscripted television production and a focus now on more independent and underground films. Despite the move away from big-budget productions, local filmmakers are creating more content than ever before, thanks to kickstarter programs, evolving technology and a growing number of film festivals and community outreach efforts.

The Memphis & Shelby County Film/TV Commission is a non-profit agency that handles recruiting and assists with everything from slideshows, movies, and television shows to music videos, commercials, corporate videos and films.
 
"We are an economic development agency, so we are focused on the economic aspect of production rather than arts," says Deputy Film Commissioner Sharon Fox O'Guin, who has worked for the commission for the past 19 years. "At any given moment we are working with five to ten projects. What I do is act as a first responder."
 
The commission helps film producers by letting them know about local crew and equipment available here, the production rates at local hotels, and possible locations that will fit their scripts, as well as helping them obtain film permits from the city or county and even arranging police or fire department assistance in some cases.
 
Past big-budget films made in Memphis, such as The People vs. Larry Flint, 21 Grams or The Firm, have been usurped thanks to the rise of cable television and the wide variety of shows.
 
"The bulk of the work that we do is with episodic television, such as Celebrity Wife Swap, Food Paradise and Ghost Hunters. A number of shows for different networks will come in town for a day or two," says O'Guin.  
 
From last July to March of this year, 23 television shows filmed here, including The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance, America Declassified, Bring It!, Deadly Affairs, Drugs Inc., Grilled, On the Case with Paula Zahn, Porscia Gets Her Groove Back, HBO's Quarry, Shark Tank, Welcome to Sweetie Pie's and more.
 
However, currently the commission is working with three local films that are funded.
 
"We assist everyone, but we are truly designed to assist those that already have their funding, because our focus is on economic development," says O'Guin. "We are encouraging leaving money in the local economy. Whether that's staying in hotels or renting equipment here or hiring local crew, it's all about economic development and the jobs created."
 
For the past fiscal year, the commission’s clients created 654 jobs for 361 filming days, which resulted in more than $2 million being left in the local economy.
 
"Those numbers are without any feature films, which sometimes bring as much as $6 million to the economy in one project," says O'Guin, who explains that smaller projects make up the majority of our local film and TV production, like a recent Nike commercial production that hired local crew and 175 extras and actors.
 
"Ten years ago most of my time was spent recruiting big feature films like Walk the Line," says O'Guin, who points out that in 2004 the commission had to fight to keep Walk the Line from going to Louisiana to shoot, and the film actually ended up losing money by shooting here.
 
Since then Memphis has had a much tougher time luring big productions due to the aggressive film incentives of states like Louisiana and Georgia, both of which have state income taxes to help boost incentives.
 
"In the past five years or so, Georgia has been our biggest competition due to their great incentives," O'Guin says. "We really can't compete for the bigger projects coming up. So now our time is really spent more with reality shows and smaller independent films."
 
Tennessee boasts a 25 percent cash rebate film incentive, but that only applies to each production's in-state spend.
 
"So larger films that plan to bring in a lot of people from the outside, those hires do not count towards their in-state spend," says O'Guin.
 
A recurring fund set up by Senator Mark Norris is expected to increase incentives in the future to help lure more large projects to the state.
 
Thriving Film Fests
Memphis now features more film festivals than ever before, with offerings like the new Jewish International Film Festival, On Location Memphis Film and Music Festival, the Memphis International Film Festival, the Bikesploitation Film Festival, the Outflix Film Festival and Indie Memphis, the city's largest film festival.
 
"What we trumpet is that the unique nature of our festival is due to the unique nature of Memphis," says Erik Jambor, Indie Memphis executive director. Jambor has been involved with organizing film festivals since 1999, when he started the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Ala.
 
Indie Memphis has thrived since Jambor took over in 2008, averaging more than 10,000 attendees for the past several years. For the second consecutive year, the festival has been named to MovieMaker magazine's 2014 list of "Top 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee."
 
The 17th annual 2014 fest will run from October 30 to November 2 at various locations in Overton Square in Midtown. Last year Indie Memphis added the Circuit Playhouse to its venue list, and this year festivalgoers will be able to enjoy the newly constructed Hattiloo Theatre.
 
"So this year we will have even more of a pedestrian-friendly environment, which should make it even more appealing to sponsors looking for event sponsorships," says Jambor. "The scenario we have in Overton Square is really a unique situation. I don't know of any other festival that has that many top-notch venues in such a compressed space."
 
More than 150 volunteers help out each year to make the festival happen. Indie Memphis chooses 150 to 200 films to show each year, and Jambor expects more than 800 submissions this year--more than ever before.
 
"The fun thing is that every year there seems to be a new batch of people, and you get something realtively major submitted by people you've never heard of or aren't very aware of," explains Jambor, who cites a short film called John Gray, by director Dan Baker, that wowed him a couple of years ago.
 
To help local filmmakers throughout the year, Jambor has partnered with Crosstown Arts this year to create a monthly filmmaking forum called Shoot & Splice and to bring back the MicroCinema Club, which had been dormant since 2009.
 
"The idea is to give local filmmakers, or people who want to be filmmakers, consistent networking opportunities," he says. "The MicroCinema Club gives us some more diverse programming, as it is usually short films (often experimental), some animation--content that is pretty cool."
 
For the Love of the Art 
"There's definitely a great artistic scene here," says Ryan Watt, a successful local film producer who has worked in feature films, corporate videos, music videos, web videos and ad work over the past six years.
 
The films Watt has produced so far have had smaller budgets, ranging from $20,000 to nearly $100,000.
 
"The advantage to that is there is very little risk. I can work with filmmakers that want to try things that might not seem as traditionally commercial, so they can take more risks as an artist, and for me that is more exciting," he says.  
 
Watt cites the rise of video-on-demand services like Amazon Instant, Google Play and Hulu as a major factor in helping smaller films turn a profit. But it is still a very tough road.
 
"It helps that for a lot of the movies I've done we've raised a portion or sometimes all of the money from donations, so that offsets some of the investment risk," says Watt, who sweetens the deal for contributors with perks and benefits.
 
Watt most recently worked on Free In Deed, which shot here in February and is directed by Jake Mahaffy.
 
Overall in Memphis, Watt sees more and more independent and underground films being made every year. He feels there are more people making films in Memphis for the love of the art than in most bigger film markets.
 
One of those people is definitely Mike McCarthy, referred to by some as the "Godfather of Memphis Film." McCarthy has been making films in Memphis for the past 20 years, including eight features, a dozen shorts and more than 35 music videos for his Guerrillamonster Films company.
 
"While I would not recommend anyone else do this, I would also say that I'd rather lose in Memphis than win someplace else," says McCarthy, who hopes to make the move into more profitable independent films with his next project, an adaptation of his three-issue Kid Anarchy comic that he drew for Fantagraphics back in the early 1990s.
 
"I am seeking answers, or happiness, or closure … though my films. Now I have to change everything if I want this filmmaking journey to continue. So change is inevitable … but not all change is good change. It's obvious I have to come up from the underground into the 'indie' world. I suppose I don't entirely trust that world because of its gentrification process. I am very cautious about 'gentrification' because I see what it does to the literal landscape of what I love about old Memphis. Maybe I'm just crazy for always being honest or more libertarian than most, but I have always tried to live up to a model that no longer exists or--perhaps--never did."
 
McCarthy reveres the historical aspects of Memphis and hates to see that much of it has been torn down over the years, and his films showcase that passion.
 
"To quote Ray Davies, 'The cherished things are perishing, and buried in their tombs …' he says.
 
McCarthy rereleased his 2009 film, Cigarette Girl, on DVD this month, including a special screening on May 17 at Studio on the Square in Midtown that included many of the film's actors in attendance.
 
Coming up on May 24, he will bring his films to the perfect venue for his work--the historic Summer Drive-In, which opened in September of 1966--and he promises baptisms with popcorn, along with chance to see a Mike McCarthy film marathon that will run until 4 a.m.
 
Guerrilla and independent filmmaking is more achievable today than ever before.
 
"Technology has drastically changed to where you can get cameras very cheap and then go to rental houses to get amazing gear that doesn't cost much money," says Watt. "So on a low budget you can actually make something that looks good. Decades ago that was not even a possibility."
 
O'Guin agrees.
 
"This is a really exciting time to be a filmmaker, because equipment is available and relatively inexpensive compared to shooting on 16 mm film 20 years ago,” she says. "Nowadays my 12-year-old can shoot and edit on her phone. A lot of local filmmakers are just using what they have and not having to go out and rent equipment. The trend locally for filmmaking is that instead of trying to make the next huge blockbuster, filmmakers are trying to just express themselves with what they have."

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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